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Palm Sunday

30 March 2017

Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-18; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 26.14-end of 27

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Almighty and everlasting God, who in your tender love towards the human race sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross: grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

ALTHOUGH the Palm Sunday Gospel-reading changes through the three-year cycle of the lectionary, the Old and New Testament readings Isaiah 50.4-9a and Philippians 2.5-11 are unvarying.

They are separated by about 500 years, and are addressed to very different settings: the one looking to a time when the community of exiles in Babylon would make their way home in the confidence of a renewed relationship with God; the other speaking to a very early community of believers about the ultimate triumph of the Christ who put aside every claim to glory in dying on the cross.

What they share is a movement from humiliation to vindication and exaltation — a sense that, whatever level of degradation the faithful might be reduced to, they are never abandoned by God. Together, they create the framing hope around the Passion narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, insisting that innocent suffering is not pointless suffering, and that what looks like a chain of relentless historical events is always, if mysteriously, held within the power and providence of God.

No lectionary, however compellingly it helps us to be thoughtful interpreters, can lessen the dramatic impact of the Passion narratives themselves. They are meant to work on the imagination and place the audience in the scene. They direct emotions and attitudes by their design and attention to detail, and, in one signal instance, that influence must be resisted: commentators on Matthew are particularly alert to the anti-Semitic bias of the writer, who was determined to attach the guilt for Jesus’s death to the Jewish religious authorities and elders who negotiated with Judas, and plotted to find charges that would stick (Matthew 26.14-16, 59-60, 27.1-2, 62-66); and, finally, to the people at large (Matthew 27.24-26).

Yet whatever quarrel this Gospel might have been pursuing at the time of writing, its determination to uphold the authority of scripture, and obedience to scripture, as the identifying mark of God’s people, is unwavering. In Jesus, that obedience is perfectly modelled and embodied.

Obedience is difficult to present as an active virtue. Matthew’s challenge is to show that Jesus follows a programme that has been foreseen by the prophets to whom he refers (Matthew 26.31, 53-56, 64), but that, in doing this, he is fully and actively engaged with the will of his Father.

The first two scenes in the drama show how the challenge is met. We enter the action as Judas is on his way to the chief priests to offer to betray Jesus (Matthew 16.14-16). A short time later, Jesus has taken possession of events. If he is going to his death, it is because he has chosen to follow that path, although the one who betrays him is not thereby exonerated (Matthew 26.24).

As he gives broken bread to his disciples, and the cup of wine circulates round the gathering, he makes it unmistakably clear that the power to give his life into the hands of others rests with him: “Take, eat; this is my body. . . [T]his is my blood of the new covenant” (Matthew 26.26-28).

The setting moves to Gethsemane, and Jesus is found wrestling physically and spiritually with the calling he has already identified. He throws himself on the ground as he prays to discern the difference between his will and his Father’s. The echo of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 26.42) declares the full implication of the petition that brings the world into alignment with the Kingdom of God: “Your will be done” (Matthew 6.10).

From this moment, powerlessness and authority come together in Jesus. In the world’s eyes, he is a prisoner who will be falsely accused, and progressively humiliated and degraded until he dies. In the eyes of the Gospel-writer and all who recognise him as the Messiah, the Son of Man (Matthew 26.64), his active obedience to the Father exposes the shallow, fearful vindictiveness of the powers that hold him. He is not just obeying scripture, he is working out his part in fulfilling scripture.

Nothing could sound more like an ending than the last words he utters: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22.1). Yet they are the beginning of something that moves through despair to praise for the God who saves the afflicted (Psalm 22.19-31). The dying Jesus is scripture in the making, the chapter that is being written in full view of anyone able to see, and which the scattered disciples will come to understand when they meet him again in Galilee (Matthew 26.32).

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